Spotlight Album

Places in The Heart

Gabrielle Louise: ‘The record is about grief and loss, and looking those right in the face, but it’s also about finding sanctuary in the center of myself and expanding my capacity for compassion…’


By David McGee




Gabrielle Louise


“There’s an awful lot of words to wade through/I know that neither of us know the way/you don’t want to hear about the ways I blame you/I don’t want to hear a single thing you say/ooooh, how did we run aground/once there was so much water, we drowned…”

So begins, over a soft, fingerpicked guitar introducing the song “Words,” Gabrielle Louise’s astonishing The Unending Alteration of the Human Heart, a quiet, piercing, masterful deconstruction of profound betrayal and the toll it takes—in this case the outcome is clearly announced in the album title. By removing the mystery of what is about to unfold in her songs, Ms. Louise clears the field for the listener to simply absorb the story. Perhaps a listener can find his or her own place in the perspectives she offers, but in the end that’s not the point of this endeavor. Listen, just listen, the songs seem to say, with its overriding message articulated succinctly in “House of Cards,” to wit: “’Til you’re honest with yourself you’ll break every heart.” Find yourself in these songs if you will, but she’s addressing herself in unvarnished interior monologues, leading by example in facing head-on hard truths about life, love and loss.

Sad and beautiful, this is a torch album for the ages. It’s also a relative rarity, historically. Torch songs pop up fairly regularly, although not with the regularity of days gone by. The first of its kind may well date as far back as 1580 when one Richard Jones registered “Greensleeves” with the London Stationer’s Company; it became popular enough in its era to be referenced twice in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Falstaff and by Mistress Ford. The song’s opening lines—“Alas my love, you do me wrong/to cast me off discourteously…”—are the foundation for a few centuries’ worth of what we know as torch songs. As surely as lovers have cast each other off discourteously through the centuries, so have female artists dominated the torch tradition.

‘House of Cards,’ Gabrielle Louise, from The Unending Alteration of the Human Heart

In a recording career spanning 1955 to 1969, Julie London made a personal art form of the torch song. Producer and Liberty Records founder Simon Waronker, who discovered London singing in a Los Angeles jazz club, remarked that “the lyrics poured out of her like a hurt bird.” And so they did. Her debut album, 1955’s Julie Is Her Name, gave us an undisputed torch classic in “Cry Me a River,” but her 1956 album, Lonely Girl, was her first full immersion in torch as a collection of songs (from various writers) connected by theme and mood; she went on to put an indelible stamp on the style, with albums such as 1957’s Make Love to Me, 1958’s London By Night and 1960’s Around Midnight being but a few of her long-playing torch essentials. The same year Lonely Girl was released saw the first country concept album emerge, Songs of a Love Affair, by then-new hitmaker Jean Shepard, produced by Ken Nelson. Shepard conceived the album after hearing a Joe Allison-penned ballad, “Hello Old Broken Heart,” and then collecting songs from other writers that described a young girl’s lovelorn experiences. Backed by a solid country combo with pedal steel and fiddle prominent in the atmospherics, Shepard offered an ambivalent view of love and commitment ranging from sad resignation (the aforementioned “Hello Old Broken Heart”) to the scarlet letter attending “Disgraced Girls” to the more generous climax of “It’s Hard to Tell the Married From the Free.” Aging well, Songs from a Love Affair sounds fresh as ever to ears attuned to classic country with a honky-tone shade and some of its ideas might even be termed progressive. Rosemary Clooney recorded some beautiful, and sad, love songs in her distinguished career, but her one extended discourse on the subject came in Love, an album recorded in 1961 with producer Nelson Riddle and eventually released in 1963 after being picked up by Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label. Love was not looking for hit singles; it was a deliberate deep dive into mending a broken heart—it marked the end of her long extramarital love affair with Riddle and was suitably raw by Clooney and classic pop standards.

‘Hello Old Broken Heart,’ Jean Shepard, from Songs From a Love Affair (1956)

As for male torch singers, only one name really matters: Frank Sinatra. Between 1955 and 1962 the Chairman of the Board ran roughshod over the genre with incomparably beautiful albums chronicling the dark night of a soul bereft of love: In the Wee Small Hours (1955); Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958); No One Cares (1959); All Alone (March 1962); and Point of No Return (October 1962). From these we get “What Is This Thing Called Love” (Cole Porter); “Angel Eyes” (Earl Brant and Matt Dennis); “Ebb Tide” (Robert Maxwell-Carl Sigman); “One for My Baby” (Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer); “Here’s That Rainy Day” (Johnny Burke-Jimmy Van Heusen); “I’ll Never Smile Again” (Ruth Lowe)., to name a few of the outstanding Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins productions therein. Lest we forget, Marty Robbins, long on familiar terms with concept albums, contributed two torch gems of his own in 1961’s Just a Little Sentimental and 1965’s bittersweet Turn the Lights Down Low.

‘Angel Eyes,’ Frank Sinatra, from Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely (1958)

Among contemporary artists, Carly Simon delivered her 1981 album, Torch, as her marriage to James Taylor was collapsing. She dipped liberally into the Great American Songbook for tunes, contributed one original (“From the Heart”) and delivered more nuanced readings than her fans might have expected in light of the rock-based ballads on which she had built her career to that point. Less proved to be more as the most memorable moments were subdued, such as “The Blue of Blue,” with David Sanborn’s crying sax as the dominant instrumental feature, and the whisper-to-a-cry reading of Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By.” Turns out she wound up in a two-year relationship with actor Al Corley (then starring in Dynasty), who is the barely recognizable male Ms. Simon is hanging onto in the album’s cover shot. Hello, heartache indeed. Come 1990 Rosanne Cash, her marriage to Rodney Crowell in its death throes, lashed out in her self-produced Interiors, a collection of original songs that begins with the lyrics “We crawled night and day through the tears and debris.” She proceeds to lay waste to the unexamined life and to the quaint notion that complete self-expression and fulfilment are possible in a close, committed relationship. Ultimately, though, the pain of betrayal (“Paralyzed”) produces movement toward a goal dimly seen but deeply felt, with the promise of a whole human being emerging complete at journey’s end. Cut to 2009 and Amy Speace made a significant leap into Americana consciousness with The Killer in Me, widely referred to as being the product of her own marriage dissolving. The critical reaction to this beautiful, captivating if painful collection of original songs moved Ms. Speace to clarify in interviews that she intended her outpourings to comprise a long view of marriage as an institution, or a concept, rather than an illumination of her own experience. In fact, to your faithful friend and narrator she explained, “The thing is, the songs aren’t for the most part autobiographical. I don’t write songs about my divorce. When I write a song, I tend to come from a personal place, then I try to take it outward a little bit. There’s a whole of hope in it too, so I didn’t feel like it was a dark, cathartic, mean record about one specific marriage—my marriage. It’s kind of not really even about my marriage, but that’s where I wrote the songs from.”

‘Paralyzed,’ Rosanne Cash, from Interiors (1990)

Which brings us back to The Unending Alteration of the Human Heart, which takes its rightful place among the timeless torch albums outlined above. In a video about the making of the album, the artist says the first stages of songwriting were marked by “extreme loss and disappointment, a death of dreams, a kind of end to my youth and naivete, and a need to withdraw and nurture myself in a gentle and minimal atmosphere. But by the end of my creative process, I felt grateful, full of faith that the grief was a gift.” As she notes in the interview, “The record is about grief and loss, and looking those right in the face, but it’s also about finding sanctuary in the center of myself and expanding my capacity for compassion, because that’s what happens each time I recover from heartbreak in a conscious way.” In contrast to Amy Speace’s approach, Ms. Louise’s songs come from a personal place, but rather than taking them outward she goes deeper into her own experience, using her considerable gifts in poetry and prose to make sense of the grief and loss shaping her altered heart without diminishing her art’s accessibility.

‘See In The Dark,’ Gabrielle Louise, from The Unending Alteration of the Human Heart

The settings for these songs are spacious and languorous, evoking the landscape Ms. Louise knows well in her native Colorado and placing her stylistically in league with Ms. Cash and Ms. Speace, with equal elements of country and folk forming the soundscape for the singer’s crystalline vocals to shoot straight through the heart, never more so than when she soars into her dulcet upper register—it’s a thing of beauty, an instrument of deep passion and near-palpable spirituality. Co-produced by Ms. Louise and Tim Mitchell, the band is comprised of Ms. Louise on acoustic guitar, piano and Rhodes; David Kaye, a quintuple threat on stringed instruments (his dobro and pedal steel are especially effective throughout); Greg Schochet on electric guitar and mandolin; Jon McMillian on electric and upright bass; and Damon Smith on drums, percussion and harmony vocals. Guest vocalists include Beth Wood, Brodie Kinder and long-time partner in song David Rynhart.

‘Time,’ Gabrielle Louise, from The Unending Alteration of the Human Heart. Filmed and edited by Being Films.

In the sanguine country strains of “See In The Dark,” snapshots of loving memories (“how easy I know you/know you by the shape of your hands…it’s easy to know you/know you by the sweet way you stand…”) evolve into a searing reality: “Time is a tyrant, taking all that is tender…”  In fact, time looms over so many songs here, what it gave and, most critically, what it stole. In the song “Time,” she sings, “Life alone is simple/it’s not half as crazy/it’s just time…time… time…all there is is time…” in the midst of cataloguing all that’s gone away; time hangs on her soft, breathy vocal like an epic weight. Even in “Sun Up in Somerset,” a laid-back, evocative snapshot set in a coal mining town, time only underscores her protagonist’s impermanence, as we learn in a repeating refrain casually marking a drifter’s ways: “Fall is passing through on a breeze/oh, he drifts away on a dream…,” and, “Water passing through in the creek/oh, he drifts away on a dream…” and finally, “Strangers passing through in the night/oh, he drifts away on their taillights…”

‘Deportee,’ by woody Guthrie, performed by Gabrielle Louise, from The Unending Alteration of the Human Heart

Against this backdrop, it may seem odd to close such an intensely personal collection of musical missives with “Deportee,” a poem by Woody Guthrie set to music by Martin Hoffman and popularized by Pete Seeger, protesting the racist treatment of 28 migrant farm workers who perished in a 1948 plane crash while being deported back to Mexico. Radio and newspaper reports of the crash omitted the workers’ names, referring to them instead as “deportees.” Oft covered, the song will not die and in fact has relevance anew in light of the Trump administration’s years-long efforts to demonize and criminalize everything about people of color—exactly the racist mindset prevalent then throughout the country. Time is tyranny. As Paul Simon wrote, “Time, time, time, see what’s become of me.” As Gabrielle Louise reminds us: “A memory is all I have.”  And as Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu philosophized, “The absence of love is the most abject pain.” Behold, The Unending Alteration of the Human Heart

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